Some time ago, in response, to legitimate concerns about possible illicit uses of mobile banking, I wrote that mobile technology also offered enormous counter-terror and development opportunities.
It turns out, as a thoughtful commentator mentioned, that USAID is already on the case. I hope the public diplomacy community follows suit. Really development and public diplomacy can go hand in hand – particularly now with 60% of the world’s population using mobile phones.
It may turn out that simply dispersing mobile phones or using them as a means to distribute aid will prove to be one of their greatest development roles. Also, people could be paid to access valuable information that they might not seek on their, but that might prove very useful - such as health education.
As it happens, in my coursework at the University of Maryland I am studying surveys. In the United States, where random dialing surveys were – until recently – considered a terrific way to reach representative samples, mobile phones are a source of frustration. Certain demographics are unlikely to own a landline at all and surveying mobile phones is problematic because the exchanges are not tied to a particular geography.
But in class I pointed out (and the USAID folks get it as well) that over the long-term mobile phones are going to be a tremendous boon to surveys. One big problem with surveys is reaching people at all, but mobile phones are not attached to a location, but to the person. Also the mobile phone can reach people multiple ways, so that the survey can combine verbal and “written” components. Best of all, people can be paid – perhaps by free minutes or in cash – to participate. Cellphone companies can give people the option of making themselves available for surveys in exchange for reduced rates and then sell the lists to marketing companies. There is no privacy issue as participation would be entirely voluntary.
Cellphones offer a tremendous way to create a feedback loop between providers and consumers in which needs can be quickly identified and addressed. The producer and consumer concept are not limited to commerce. It applies to development issues and counter-insurgency. Armies fighting insurgents (if they are doing a decent job) collect lots of data about their progress and public attitudes. The ubiquity of mobile phones will make this challenge much easier.
A brave new world – and yes, bad guys will figure out how to abuse it – but the benefits will almost certainly outweigh the costs.